Synchronized swimming: Why are these sea lions flippering us off?

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About 7:30 a.m. on April 20, Anne Huey saw something curious off Myrtle Edwards Park: Two groups of large pinnipeds, apparently California sea lions, floating in unison with their flippers held high in the air.

Nearby, Huey spotted a clutch of smaller, more shy animals who quickly ducked under the water and swam off. Seals, she wondered? A solitary observer floated some 30 yards away, watching the synchronized swimming show. A passing Seattle Parks employee told me that this show unfolds here every spring, for just one day.

So why the water ballet? Here's my guess: The paddle-flipping synchro swimmers are male seal lions showing off for the girls, putting on a mating display. (You can probably recall some human equivalents.) The shy group that swam off, and perhaps the solitary observer, are the females for whom the show is intended.

Surely some Crosscut readers who know more about pinnipeds and springtime mating behaviors can correct, confirm or otherwise expand upon this explanation. Has anyone else seen this show? What are these critters doing?

Fortunately, Anne Huey also shot some video of the action.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.